Archaeologists Discover Ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s Ornate Breakfast Chamber

In the second century A.D., the Roman ruler entertained his guests on a raised marble platform surrounded by elaborate fountains

A view of a shallow pool of water with columns and crumbling structures extending behind
Villa Adriana, or Hadrian's Villa, is a Unesco World Heritage Site in Tivoli, Italy, that spans 200 acres and was built around 210 A.D. by Roman leader Hadrian. DeAgostini / Getty Images

Talk about dining in style: In the second century A.D., Roman emperor Hadrian and his empress, Vibia Sabina, may have eaten their breakfast on an opulent marble platform surrounded by flowing water as an entourage of servants, separated from the imperial couple by retractable bridges, stood at attention nearby.

Now, reports Ángel Gómez Fuentes for Spanish newspaper ABC, archaeologists from the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville have unearthed traces of this unique dining arrangement.

Speaking with ABC, lead researcher Rafael Hidalgo Prieto calls the discovery a “unique” and “bombshell” find.

Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 A.D. and is perhaps best known for his eponymous wall in northern Britain, commissioned the room as part of his Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), an expansive 200-acre complex of more than 30 buildings near Tivoli, Italy.

Inspired by Greek, Roman and Egyptian architecture, Hadrian designed the villa as an “ideal city,” per the site’s Unesco World Heritage website. Notable features included a copy of the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, theaters, libraries, gardens, baths, man-made pools, galleries and a “palace” consisting of many rooms that opened onto a grand central courtyard.

Prieto describes the newly discovered structure as a water triclinium, or Roman dining room. According to the Getty Foundation’s Shelby Brown, Roman elites and their dinner guests convened in these spaces to recline on elegant U-shaped couches and enjoy expensive food and drink.

In the Villa Adriana dining room, private guests would have dined with the emperor in an exclusive, luxurious environment. As Prieto explains to ABC, per Google Translate, the archaeologists theorize that the emperor and other royals gathered on a marble platform “on top of a pool, with the water fountains behind, with the murmur of the water always present in the banquet, with the vision in front of the garden.”

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of an imperial dining room surrounded by water. Rafael Hidalgo Prieto / Pablo de Olavide University
Roman empress Vibia Sabina Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Hadrian, Roman emperor from 117 to 138 A.D. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Light would have flooded into the semi-circular space through large windows. The main eating platform connected to four nearby bedchambers and latrines adorned with precious stones, reports Caroline Goldstein for Artnet News.

“In all the Roman world there is nothing like it,” Prieto tells ABC. “The emperor wanted to show things that would overwhelm the visitor, something that had not been seen anywhere else in the world and that exists only in Villa Adriana.”

As Artnet News notes, Hadrian’s Villa also featured a man-made waterway meant to represent the Nile River. Hadrian created the fountain in honor of his young lover Antinous, who drowned in Egypt in 130 A.D.

In addition to the flooded triclinium, the Spanish researchers discovered a separate dining room that Prieto thinks may have served as the model for the well-known Canopo e Serapeo (Canopus and Serapeum). An elaborate outdoor banquet space built by Hadrian, the venue boasted a fountain in the shape of a crocodile, among other imposing features. This smaller dining area was built earlier than the Canopo and featured a garden and a large pond.

As Philip Willan reports for the Times, Hadrian’s taste for grandeur also served to reinforce his status as divine ruler of Rome in the eyes of his subjects.

“The villa was a machine that served to represent the emperor’s divinity,” Andrea Bruciati, director of Villa Adriana, tells the Times.

A meal with Hadrian, he adds, would have been a “quasi-theatrical spectacle.”